First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are expected to attend a British-Irish Council meeting in Edinburgh today [Friday], despite the fact the Stormont executive is not meeting.
Last week a North-South Ministerial meeting did not go ahead when unionists did not designate a representative, although Sinn Féin agriculture minister Michelle Gildernew did meet southern ministers.
DUP leader Mr Robinson claimed yesterday that talks with Sinn Féin had made progress on the policing issue and called for nationalists to allow executive meetings to proceed while discussions continued.
“I do not believe that there is any political, logical, legal or justifiable reason why the executive should not be meeting,” said Robinson.
Sinn Féin has refused to meet because of the absence of agreement on the range of issues dividing the parties, which also include education reform, the Irish language and the future of the Long Kesh prison heritage site.
The 2006 St Andrews Agreement set May of this year as a target date for the devolution of policing powers. The pledge was a key element of the package which persuaded Sinn Féin to support the PSNI police, which still remains under the direct authority of the British Crown.
Earlier this month, the DUP demanded a pledge from Sinn Féin that the Provisional IRA’s ruling Army Council disband before it would accept the transfer of policing powers.
But former 26-County Taoiseach Bertie Ahern today said that the demand was not part of the deal which set up the current power-sharing government.
Mr Ahern said: “I have to restate again, because it was part of these discussions and talks, the devolution of policing was not predicated on the army council doing this, that or the other.
“It was not on that. It was a solemn agreement that the Irish Government, the British government were engaged and involved in, that said we would have the devolution of policing, that was the effect of it.”
Mr Ahern said it was his opinion that “cows will fly” before the Provisional Army Council disbands, and said the DUP was “well aware” of the British and Irish governments’ commitment to the transfer of policing and justice powers -- something which former DUP leader Ian Paisley has since denied.
The DUP is also now calling for an expansion of the British-Irish Council, with the establishment of a permanent secretariat to the body.
The Council was set up under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and brings together political leaders from England, Scotland, Wales, and the two Irish administrations. Unionists requested the council to be set up during the negotiations to strengthen the ‘East-West’ dimension to counter-balance the effect of the all-Ireland ‘North-South’ Ministerial Council.
SDLP IN THE MIDDLE
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin continued to criticise SDLP Minister Margaret Ritchie for holding a ‘breakaway’ Executive meeting with DUP and Ulster Unionist Ministers at Stormont last week, in the absence of Sinn Féin. The smaller nationalist party has been seeking to reposition itself as part of a potential new coalition with unionists to replace the current multi-party administration.
Senior Sinn Féin Assembly member John O’Dowd linked the move to the contentious statement earlier this month by the SDLP leader Mark Durkan that the system of power-sharing between unionists and nationalists should be scrapped.
The picture of Ms Ritchie holding a press conference flanked by Mr Robinson and Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey outside Stormont Castle last week was a “physical manifestation of Durkan’s anti-powersharing blueprint”, said Mr O’Dowd.
“He clearly has no interest in being a smaller party in a power-sharing administration and is seeking an alternative. His view is very simple - if the SDLP are not going to be the lead nationalist party then no nationalist or republican should exercise power.”
The next planned meeting of the executive is next week.